Epic. This is what we were told by Ranger Rick at the Redwoods National and State Forests Visitor Center. You would think that he was talking about the trees we were getting ready to go see this past Saturday, and it is true, those are epic, indeed. But, no, it wasn’t the trees. He was talking waves. Giant waves. As we were chatting about the majesties of this northwestern coastal region, he mentioned that we might want to check out the waves on Monday because they were going to be “epic,” 30 ft monstrosities (at least for this coastal area). By this time, we were accustomed to the consistent hazardous seas warnings put out by the NWS. We have seen some epic-ish waves, thought 30 ft was higher than what we had witnessed so far.
Our friend arrived, and we said goodbye to Ranger Rick. As we headed into the epic forests, we set aside what we’d heard about the waves. Until yesterday. Gail had read more about this forecast. They were predicting 25-40 ft waves along the northwest coast, with some waves reaching 50 ft. The highest waves were to be in Eureka, California, nearly 200 miles from Gold Beach, but the entire coast from Coos Bay to San Fran was to get a taste. What timing. Our friend hadn’t been to this part of the coast before, so seeing this drama was a not-to-be-missed treat. Especially when hearing that the NWS was saying that going onto the water meant “imminent death.” Now those aren’t words you hear coming from these normally stoic and reserved agency folks at the National Weather Service. Of course we had to go check them out.
Looking at the waves in the Gold Beach area, it was obvious they were even more turbulent than they’d been thus far, but though big, they did not seem epic. Impressive, yes, but not yet epic. We determined to just see where they drive south took us, how far we would go would be determined by our moods and daylight. We would find out that this was an epic day, altogether. A grand, wonderful, joyful day, punctuated by even more epic moments, with a terrifying exclamation point at the end of a sentence in a paragraph that describes the entire day.
We drove south from where our friend was staying and pulled off at an overlook where there was a crashing display of white foam and sea spray. A moving van was pulled off there already, and its driver out taking photos. The three of us looked on at the ocean in that wonder that is ever-present out here and snapped our own pics. As we were heading back to the car to drive on, I noticed that the man had stepped over the guardrails and was looking over the edge at the appearing and disappearing rim of sand (and it wasn’t even close to high tide), holding onto his hat as the wind whipped around. He looked up and saw us, and I called out “Don’t let the wind blow you away!”
With a huge grin on his face, he called back that this was his first time seeing this. We walked towards him as he clarified that this was actually his first time ever seeing the Pacific Ocean. The look on his face. It was priceless. He was so full of glee and joy it was impossible to keep it at all contained, and he danced around in exuberance at what he was witnessing. I told him he came at exactly the right time, that he would be able to see some incredible sights if he kept driving along the coast. I asked him where he was from…
“I’m all the way from Illinois!” he said.
In unison, the three of us said, “So are we!!”
He literally started jumping around at hearing this. We found out he was from Chicago, and when we told him we were from Champaign, he laughed and told us that he is now living a mere 45 minutes away from Champaign, in Bloomington. He shook our hands and proceeded to tell someone he was talking to in his headset that he just met three ladies from Champaign, Illinois. Seeing his uncontained joy, his excitement, as he giggled and jumped and gestured, and feeling the camaraderie of sharing this moment with someone who was not only experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time on this epic day, but who was also from Illinois…well, it made me giddy with joy of my own. I got tears in my eyes from the beauty of that moment, and it’s bringing tears to my eyes now, as I write this. Watching a 38-year-old man with the completely unguarded jubilation of a kid just made my day. And we’d only just started.
We continued south, stopping along the way at overlooks that were suddenly more populated than I’d seen them thus far, and it was a Monday. Seems we weren’t the only ones drawn to the promise of one of Mother Nature’s displays of power. We found, as we drove, that the best shows tended to be in areas where there was nowhere to pull off. The waves were meant to be highest on northwest and west facing coastlines. The northwest facing coastlines fulfilled their promises, even more so than the west facing ones. So we hopped our way down from one overlook to the next, talking and ogling and moving onwards. We found ourselves suddenly just 40 miles from Eureka. How could we not go the rest of the way?
It was a good decision. We pulled off the 101 at Eureka, driving over the Arcata Channel and into Samoa. Finding a turnout beside the dunes that wasn’t full, we pulled over and climbed the short trail over the dunes to take our front-row positions at the show. Not only were the waves high, 40-50 ft, but they were coming in with such rapidity and so close together. Deep blue giants rolling in from a distance, some cresting almost out of view. They got bigger as we stood there watching, and came closer in. A dog wandered by, wearing a shirt, but seemingly unattached to any person. I tried getting it to come to me, but it was completely in its own world. Gail was watching it from closer to the water. She had her back to the waves, standing in a location where the waves had yet to reach. Until then. She turned just in time to see one coming for her, but not in time to run far enough away to not get soaked up to almost her knees. Good thing we had opted notto bring extra shoes and socks along, as has been the habit when hiking along the beach…she spent the rest of the time in wet socks and shoes. The dog disappeared down the beach.
I am not sure how long we were there. At some point, I looked at my watch and realized it was after 3 pm. The sun sets at around 4:40 pm. Time to make our way back, so we would not be driving the entire 200 miles in the dark. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but we managed. Heading north, we drove by a herd of elk grazing in a meadow. We came upon a giant bull elk grazing on the side of the road. Yes, we stopped to watch, and to let our friend, who was on the right side of the car, shoot some pics, as the bull looked on, unconcerned with our presence. We headed into the Redwoods on a scenic stretch of road and promptly saw a second bull elk grazing along the side of the road, even bigger than the first. Yes, we stopped to watch again, and for Gail and me to take pics this time, since it was on our side of the road. Funny how that worked out.
Still in California, and still, thankfully, in daylight, re-entered the 101 and continued north, reveling in the scenery and the experiences we’d had. We approached a pullout to our left, with a cliff wall to our right. I had just glanced out at the ocean and turned my eyes back to the road. Just. In. Time. I gasped as I caught sight of two figures running down the road, and running right towards me, in my lane, and not veering at all. Thankfully, the traffic on the other side of the road had stopped in time, but now I had to slam on my breaks, on wet roads. The two dogs still did not move out of my way. I had no idea how I was going to stop in time, and I had nowhere to swerve, with traffic stopped in the oncoming lane and a cliff face on the other side of me. Somehow, though, I did manage to stop in time. The dogs walked around to the passenger side of the car. At first, we thought they were strays or escapees and tried to get them in the car, but did not even get the door open before they were dashing back to the parking area. Turned out they were escapees and their owners were trying to catch them. We lended a hand to the owners to get the pups into the safety of their vehicle.
Shaken, but so happy it all turned out well, we finished the drive back to Gold Beach as the winds picked up and the rain started falling in earnest. Gale force winds of up to 80 miles per hour and soaking rains were on tap for the overnight hour. Mother Nature continuing to remind us of her beauty and her power. It was truly an epic day. Punctuated by moments that make a person appreciate meeting a man full of joy at his first sight of the Pacific, seeing towering and turbulent waves, watching bull elks graze, driving through the Redwoods, and experiencing the whole of it with two of your closest friends.
I returned to one of the many spots I’d wanted to explore between Gold Beach and Coos Bay the day after I drove up to Coos Bay. Another sunny day on the coast. Not at all what I expected from December in coastal Oregon from what I read of the annual weather here. But I’m not complaining. So far, it’s been a nice combination of moody storms, of the gale-force wind and rain variety, and sunny skies. When I awoke to another sunny day, I knew I had to get out some, even knowing I have a goal to finish a writing project I’m currently working on by the end of this month. A sunny day on the coast in December is hard to ignore. I wrote for a few hours, and then headed back up the 101 to the place that most appealed to me from the road on the drive the day before. It is a seastack further offshore, but it is still connected by a strip of land. It has not yet been completely separated from the coast by the powerful forces of the ocean. There are plenty of places here where you can fulfill your urges to stand atop a seastack during low tide, but for some reason, this one, with its strip of connecting land, called to me to explore.
As I pulled off into the parking area, one other car pulled in at the same time. Other than that, just one other vehicle was present. A man stepped out of the car he arrived in at the same time I did. He looked around a bit and then commented to me about how beautiful it was. This began a lovely several minutes of conversation. I found out a bit of his story, and he mine. He was driving the coast road from Seattle south to southern Cali until he had to turn west. Turns out, he lives in Austin. He found it very amusing that I had lived in Austin for ten years and, after hearing that bit of information, held out his hand to shake mine and properly introduce himself. He was a delight. We parted ways, he giving the slight bow of respect of his native culture, and I a wave and nod in return. These types of exchanges out on the road are common. They are brief moments that, when stitched together, create the fabric of experiences that remind me of our common humanity, of the fact that everyone has a story, everyone has something to give, if we take the time to listen. It is one of the beautiful gifts of sharing the journey of life on this third rock from the sun. I can’t say I always appreciated that as much as I should have but living out here the way I am is fine-tuning my appreciation for more than just the beauty of the places I visit.
Bruce headed off to continue his journey down the coast, and I headed off to continue mine down to the rugged piece of land below. One thing you find out quickly in places of spectacular beauty is how little justice photos do. It is impossible to convey the grandeur of what you see in front of you on a two-dimensional image with edges that box in views that go on forever. Oh, I try, all the time, as the more than 8000 images currently in my library can attest (these are not just from this trip, but I do admit that number of photos is completely insane, and I am slowly going through them to weed out the unnecessary ones). And I tried here, as well. But the scale of the rising tuft of land I climbed or the force of the water rushing through the opening in the rock or the play of the water against the pitted, craggy surface of the seastack I sat upon looking down into the ocean below are impossible to capture well, if at all.
I walked down the coast trail until it split in two, with a detour down to the seastack and the two coves created by the piece of land leading out to it. On my continued decent, I couldn’t resist a climb up a soft tuft of land that jutted out over the beach below. I love that feeling you get at the top of something, looking down and out over a forever landscape. You feel invincible and vulnerable at the same time. It’s that line between two opposing forces: gravity and flight. A feeling of what it must feel like to be soaring over a land on your own wings yet realizing at the same time that you do not have wings at all and are bound to the earth by the force of gravity.
I stayed atop that tuft until the rocks and water pulled me down and closer. This little strip of land screamed for scramble and exploration, and the more a person climbs and scrambles, the more you realize of its hidden gems. It’s been explored a lot. You can tell by the well-worn paths created by the same curiosities among visitors to see what lies here, or over there, or up there. A perfect ledge upon which to walk to read a perch that thrusts you out over the ocean is one that not many can resist. I certainly couldn’t. I took satisfaction in knowing that while so many others obviously enjoyed exactly the same things I was currently enjoying, I was alone in my reveries and explorations at that moment. I could then at least pretend to be that first explorer discovering the wonder and power of ocean against rock. I perched, I scrambled. And I discovered something I did not at all know existed as I perched on one of the overlooks.
I saw a place where the water moved past the rock, and flowed under it in a powerful rush, before sweeping back out. A cave of sorts, it seemed. I watched from up high, and then had to inspect up close. The tide was out. Good thing. As I got closer, I noticed three other people looking at something on the other of the “cave.” I let them finish their explorations while I went to look more closely at the place I’d seen. This put me right at the level of the water rushing in, standing on top of some smaller rocks, very much attuned to the force around me. It was amazing, and I also realized what the three others were looking at. The “cave” went all the way through, and they were watching the show from the other side. I went around the rock and met the three, and their little rock-climbing pup, as they were leaving. We chatted a bit before trading places. The view was even more powerful from the other side. I watched from above for a while, before climbing below into a rocky bowl, level again with the water. I was even more aware of how powerful this water was as it came close enough to get me wet and at the same time completely attuned to the fact that I was in a bowl of rocks over my head where, during high tide, the water would surely be above my head. It was a bit scary and a bit exhilarating. The same contrasts I feel at being perched up high.
That is so true of this life we lead. It’s full of contrasts. Often we experience these contrasts simultaneously, and they can leave us feeling perplexed and confused. But I also think it’s the beauty of life. These contrasts keep us on our toes. They play off of one another and remind us of the complexities of a world we like to see in black and white. Our world is so much more than that. It’s a puzzle that never gets solved. A gift that you can unwrap forever. A secret that will be told for the rest of your life. We have much to learn about this world we live in. The opposing forces of water and rock, gravity and weightlessness, that exist here on this coast have something to teach us about the connections and human experiences that shape a life and make us who we are always becoming.
This week the sky broke open. Not with rain, but with drops of light, and then rays, and then a sky full of sunshine. The sun peeked around the canopy of trees enveloping the rig, erased the steam and busted apart the molecules of H2O clinging to the inside of windows and also daring to convene on some of the walls. I have tried to be diligent in writing this week, hunkering down inside, and stealing moments outside with Gatsby, to chase the openings in the trees and soak in the sun’s golden light. But, yesterday, I also broke open. I ditched the writing in search of movement. Yesterday, it did not rain here, but the skies were covered. I’d already decided I needed to break away from the writing to enjoy the weather, so I chased the sunlight up the coast to the north.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the rain. I always have. When I lived in Austin and San Marcos, I used go crazy because of the lack of rain. Too much sun. All the time. Too much sameness. I grew up in four seasons, of which summer was my least favorite. And then I moved to a place that felt like summer nine months of the year. And it never rained. Austin is a great city, and I know some absolutely wonderful people there, but I lived there during an extended, crushing drought. I wished for the hurricanes to impact us, not in a damaging, dramatic way, but just to bring us rain, and, instead, the fringes of clouds would pass overhead, teasing in their presence, and not leaving a drop behind as they made their way overland choosing other places to dump the wet stuff.
Now, I’m staying in one of the wettest regions of the country, during the rainy season. It’s gloriously lush here and green, rich in life and steeped in water, from the air to the sea. I feel at home here in so many ways. This is exactly where I should be for the moment. I am inspired here. And the people…I just cannot say enough about what it does to the heart to go to town and be surrounded in kindness. There is something for me here, both in the ways that I am turning inwards to write a something that wants to be written, and in the ways that I am turning outwards to exchange goodness with those around me. Sure, I am still visited by doubt and dour moods. I still face those very real vulnerabilities we each deal with in our own ways. Facing them is part of this journey, as is moving forward in spite of them. Slaying those dragons each time they rise up to throw their fiery fury my direction. And sometimes the way to do that is to get a change of perspective. Step away from your current moment and chase the sunshine up the coast.
So, yesterday, I took off in the car, not knowing exactly how far I’d go. I had it in mind to stop at enticing places along the way. I had a general thought that maybe I’d go as far as Coos Bay, because they had a food co-op there and a place called Natural Grocers. But I wasn’t married to that destination. When I got in the car, I just drove. At each amazing spot along the coast that called to me, I told myself I’d stop on my way back, because it wasn’t sunny yet, and it felt good to drive, to see the scenery glide by. I just kept heading up the 101 until I found myself in Coos Bay, where the sun was shining. I puttered around the two stores there, finding most of what I needed at the Natural Grocers, and then just wandering through the co-op because it felt like my co-op back home. Champaign home. Familiar and comfortable. Looking at my map in the parking lot of the co-op when I was finished inside, I opted to take the route heading to the coast from Coos Bay to see the sun on the water. I pointed the car west and made for a string of three state parks along the coast and directly west of Coos Bay.
I’d been here before. I camped at the Sunset Beach State Park Campgrounds, which is a lovely place to stay, and I’d explored the tide pools in Cape Arago State Park. Yesterday, I drove to Cape Arago and stopped at an overlook. Stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the throaty barks of sea lions and the thunderous roars of waves crashing against rock. Seals and sea lions mingled, lounged, fed, and played on the rocks and in the waters below. My timing couldn’t have been better, since this is a stopover for them heading south to warmer waters for the winter. It was a gift. A joy. A kindness offered up by Mother Nature. I walked a trail through the forest, marching to the sounds of the sea lions’ drums. I met an elderly couple who had lived there for 32 years before moving away and were just passing through on a trip back down memory lane. She grew up in the area and he grew up in Arkansas. They shared with me what it was like to live nearby, hearing these very sounds from their home every fall and every spring. They shared with me their love of this place, and she told me how homesick she still was, though they’d been gone for several years now. They shared with me their stories, a piece of their hearts, and, in doing so, gave me yet another gift for the day.
We parted, and I headed down to where a trail from the Cape led to tide pools. As I descended, I realized that though I’d been to the tide pools in this state park, where I was did not look familiar. It didn’t seem right, and I'd find out later that the pools I'd previously visited were on the other side of the cape. I explored anyways, watching as the sun started to sink lower in the sky, casting long reflections of its light across the water and silhouetting rocks and seals and sea birds I did not know the name of. I watched a heron watching me and watching for food. I hopped across wet sand and rocks, avoiding pools of water with the remnants of anemones, shriveled up and lifeless, empty crab and oyster shells, and decaying sea kelp. All the while, the sea lions barked from rocks not far from my explorations. They only stopped when I wandered the beach closer to where their rocky safe place was located. Then they silenced the serenades. I was still far enough away that my phone would not capture them too well, especially with the sun’s light sending the face of the rocks into darkness. So, instead, I captured the moment with my mind’s lens.
As I was preparing to leave the seals and sea lions to make their music again, the air was pierced with music of a different sort, though still a call of the wild. A high-pitched, yet melodic, chirping sound erupted. I turned in the direction of the sound and looked up in time to see the grace of dark wings and a white tail spread out behind the white head of a bald eagle, gliding in to make a landing at a nest, where a female awaited her supper. The male settled in next to the female, both of their heads barely discernable above the fronds of tree needles. If you zoom in on the photo below, you can just make out their heads in the upper left segment of the tree.
I had just received my third gift for the day. Three gifts in a few short hours. It was time to head back home, chasing the last of the day’s light, sealing my gifts in my soul to call up again when worries and vulnerabilities seek to take over. It is then that I can recall that I have been given these golden moments in the sun. Not just the three gifts from yesterday, but…this…my life, and all that I have to be grateful for every single day. Every day has its golden moments if you look for them. And the more you look for them, the more you will find them.
I woke up today feeling the peace of this place. Feeling a peace in what I’m doing here. And a desire to go back out to the coast to explore one of the places I’d seen yesterday but didn’t have time to stop for on the way home because it was getting dark. And today, was a cloudless sky day, it screamed for exploring…but I’ll save that for the next post.
We are nearing the end of our second week in Gold Beach. We are here until at least the 19thof December, though we may extend our stay another month or two. The longest we’ve spent anywhere since we started this journey five months ago was three weeks in Questa, NM. We have always been ready to move after a week or less in most places we have been. I would think I would want to be in a place longer. There are so many beautiful places I’ve been, and in each one, I would have thought I could stay and explore for long periods of time, but in each, I was ready to go in usually about four days. But now that winter is settling in, it was time to get somewhere and stay a bit, to slow down with the season. And, of course, we chose a rainy spot for this first month, at least.
I like it though. I love the colors and the insulation of the trees. The sound of the rain on the roof and the sight of droplets sliding their way down the windows is hypnotic. It is a good time for turning ever more inward in contemplation and peaceful reverie. The campground we are in is a small one, nestled in the forest with a cast of fulltime characters. There are only six other campers here at the moment, and one tent (whose occupant is apparently living there full time with his dog). Everyone is friendly but keeps largely to themselves. Gail and I are not the youngest here…which, given our ages, might not be hard to believe. But at this time of year, you expect more retirees than not.
Next door to us, however, is a trailer that lives in that particular spot. There are three young people and a dog living in this trailer, which is backed up to a permanent deck and sits with a flat tire and a tarp draped over the deck to keep it dry. These kids keep to themselves like everyone else, but I hear them when they talk, sometimes. Not that they are loud. Not by a long shot. But they are close enough to overhear, especially when they are outside. They sound familiar, though I have no reason to think so. The way they speak, though, somehow brings about a comfort of familiarity. We’ve never exchanged words, except a brief conversation with the female half of the couple. Their interactions with the dog bring a smile to my face every time. I only glimpse the surface of this oddly familiar group, and I wonder at their story. I can’t help but wonder their story, more so than anyone else here. Both because of their proximity to us as our only close neighbors and because of their ages. What brings them here to the woods to live in a trailer? What fills their days? The guy who is not the other half of the couple never really seems to go anywhere. He pads out of the door a few times a day, mostly to take the pup outside, and then disappears back inside for a few hours. I am sure they wonder the same about us. Our habits look much the same, except that I take Gatsby out in my arms a few times a day when it isn’t raining. I keep wanting to say hello, break the ice, and discover their story, but so far there hasn’t been an opening. I’ll wait for it.
In town, it’s a different story. No opening needed. I cannot honestly think of a friendlier place I’ve ever been to. Going to the grocery store, or Ace Hardware, or even to the gas station, in Gold Beach is a hug that pulls you in and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. People greet you in openness and warmth. There is none of the superficial I must do this to get paid greetings. It’s more like people actually enjoy their lives, enjoy the people they intersect with each day, and really want to say hello and strike up a conversation. I’m a stranger to these people, but I never feel that way. Like the way I’m let in on the joke between the checker and the customer in front of me at the grocery store. It seems the way of it here for people to be genuinely happy and welcoming. Ifeel genuinely happy here. It is hard not to be with these surroundings. Even with the rain—and yesterday there was a rare thunderstorm—and the stormy seas, I can’t help but bask in the power and the beauty of nature. And when the skies clear, even for a short time, it is pure magic.
I am in this place for a bit. Perhaps even the winter. I am not ready to leave yet. I don’t think I will want to leave in two weeks, or six. It’s winter in a lot of the places I want to travel next, so, for now, I am content to bide my time here. I do not mind spending days in the RV with the cats and working on a writing project (more on that at a later date). I feel a thrill each time I wander towards the coast to take a break or to run errands. I wonder what that means for my writing here, in this space. Thus far, my musings have mostly been on hikes in the places I’ve been, or special occasions in special places. I’m here for a time, so where will that take my writing here? I can’t say I know now. It’ll be its own journey, I think. An adventure of a different sort. And not in just my writing, here, but also in life. I have the time here to become, for a bit, a part of this something beautiful here. A friend to this place and the people in it. Part of the heartbeat that makes it something special, and unexpected. It’ll be a new way of moving forward, even though I am now standing still.